I was excited to receive an email from Colin Adshead at AML (Audio Maintenance Limited) about a new product in the works; their take on the Neve 1081 microphone preamp and equalizer – a personal favourite of mine. Over the years I've owned some vintage modules, and currently have a pair of the AMS Neve 1081 reissues in our racks at Strange Weather Sound. Although the earlier Neve 80 series console modules seem to get more dirt, the flexibility and clarity of the 1081's Class A/B amplifier design, combined with its expanded EQ, have always made it one of my desert island pieces of gear.
The AML ez1081 seemed very similar to the NEVE and AMS units I've used, with just a few (mostly cosmetic) changes. Its two rack space, well-built chassis contains mic and line preamps with separate transformer-balanced inputs, and a four-band semi-parametric EQ, with both high and low cut filters. All of the EQ points and gain markings match those on my AMS Neve reissue modules. In place of the notoriously faulty push-button switches of the classic modules, AML went with a metal toggle switch for selecting Mic/Line level. Rather than using expensive dual-concentric knobs and switches (like the original console modules), AML separated the EQ frequency select switch from the gain pots.
After unpacking the ez1081, I immediately wondered how it would compare to my reissue modules. It definitely has the thick low end, clear detailed top, and forward transient focus that defines the original modules. The EQ, although similar, felt maybe more forgiving than I recalled some vintage 1081s I've worked with. In my experience, original Neve modules always have a spot in the EQ where I say, "Okay, that's not helping anymore," and have to pull back to the sweet spot. These AML units, on the other hand, felt a bit softer and more accurate towards the end of the throw. They never got quite as harsh or aggressive sounding as the originals can become. For two weeks during both recording and mixing projects, I used the ez1081 interchangeably with my AMS units on kick, snare, bass, and while mixing vocals (which has always been one of my favourite uses). This is where the AML began standing out to me as more useful than either my reissues or even the originals. The ez1081's EQ played especially well throughout its whole range and was most helpful in sliding the vocal in the mix to just the right place.
No Neve style module test would really be complete without seeing how the unit performs when pushed to its limits. It's a beautiful place where the input gain is way hot and distortion starts to settle in. The ez1081 surprised me by getting aggressive without sounding anaemic, which is a problem I always seem to find in Neve clones. It maintained the characteristic thickness all the way to the end of the dial. I love it when a piece of hardware gives me a serious visceral reaction, and this unit did!
The hardest part of reviewing any piece of reissue gear is the question, "Is it the same as the original?" Personally, I'm not sure that question matters in the end. More importantly, does it do justice to and stand up to the original? In this case, I would give a resounding, "Yes!" The build quality is top-notch, and the sound won't leave you disappointed.